ESTEVAN - The world has been fighting COVID-19 for over 20 months now, and even though there are numerous vaccines in our toolbox, the potentially deadly virus is still dominating headlines on daily basis.
Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, recently pointed out Estevan and three other areas as ones having the lowest vaccination rates, and thus the highest transmission rates in the province.
Dr. Stanley Enebeli, the medical health officer for the Sun Country region of the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA), says they've been working really hard to help local people and now that they have a working and safe "tool" to fight the virus in their toolbox, seeing people not using it is hard.
"It's been a challenging period for us all, both personally and professionally … One of the tools right now that we've got in our toolbox is the vaccine. And we do know that the COVID vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective," Enebeli said.
"I know there are people who are still indecisive as to taking the vaccines, but we've had the vaccines now for several months. And we continue to monitor them quite closely. And so far, even those that complained about the side effects, it's mostly local, where you have pain, soreness or redness on your arm, and a few people do have a fever. We do have them locally and provincially, and even nationally, these side effects are well monitored. So it is safe to get these vaccines now."
Vaccines first became available in Saskatchewan in December 2020, but for the Estevan area and the southeast, the full vaccination rate, which means that people have both shots of any of the approved vaccines, is lower than 70 per cent, Enebeli said.
This means the contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 keeps blossoming in the community, and just recently there was another rise in cases in the area.
The provincial measures implemented this fall stimulated vaccination rates, but there are still too many people that didn't get their shots, which imposes higher risks on everyone.
To have herd immunity, which is "the proportion of people in a particular population that needs to be vaccinated to minimize the risk of transmission in that community," as Enebeli explained, the Estevan area would need to have 85 per cent of people immunized.
"We did see an improvement in especially the first doses. And now we're beginning to see a gradual improvement in second doses, after the public health order of having the proof of vaccination in certain spaces. That has helped, but we are still tracking low, especially in those less than 40 years of age where the vaccination rate is less than 70 per cent for second doses," Enebeli said.
He added that if the community can't reach at least 85 per cent of the vaccination rate, we are likely to see more spread of COVID-19 and potentially more deaths. The currently dominating Delta variant, which proved to be more contagious, may slow down with at least 85 per cent of the population immunized, but to ensure public safety doctors would like to see the immunization rate at above 90 per cent.
With winter just around the corner, Enebeli said vaccination becomes even more vital, as we start spending more time indoors, which creates favourable conditions for the virus to spread.
"In the winter season, we all tend to gather mostly in our homes. And even currently, the major source of transmission is being within households where you have multiple families, especially in unvaccinated households. Now that winter is coming, we are much more likely to be indoors. And the vaccines are a good barrier in stopping the spread of COVID," Enebeli said.
While the vaccines are a great tool for protection, Enebeli says, they work the best in combination with other measures that have proven to be effective throughout the past 20 months. This includes proper masking, washing or sanitizing hands regularly, keeping a two-metre distance with others as well as a careful approach to household gatherings. While there are no government-imposed restrictions for indoor events, Enebeli said people should be smart about how they gather to be safe.
"Residents in our community need to know that what we're seeing, as the … top exposure in terms of how this virus is spread within our community, is household gatherings," said Enebeli. "When you have multiple unvaccinated people from different households gathering, then this Delta variant of COVID spreads easily."
He recommended that when people plan on having an indoor gathering, to keep it safe for everyone present, they should politely ask those they invite about their vaccination status.
"Once you ask in a respectful manner, then they likely will let you know. And this will reduce the spread of COVID in our communities," Enebeli said.
"Right now, we do have our very vulnerable kids who only (on Friday) got approval from Health Canada to have these vaccines administered to them, so we need to also keep this in mind that we have to protect these kids."
Enebeli added that while fully immunized people can still get infected, their chances of having any complications or dying are many times lower.
"Choosing to remain unimmunized puts yourself, your loved ones and everyone at risk. And while it's true that immunized persons can still contract COVID, their symptoms are often less severe, and they have a greater opportunity for a full recovery and avoiding hospitalization," Enebeli said.
Based on the COVID-19 vaccination and breakthrough infections report for October, the rate of hospitalization was 85/100,000 cases for those who were unvaccinated versus 15/100,000 for those fully vaccinated. The rate for ICU admissions was 21/100,000 for the unvaccinated versus 2/100,000 for the fully vaccinated.
The rate for COVID-19 deaths was 13/100,000 for the unvaccinated versus 3/100,000 for the fully vaccinated.
"The COVID-19 vaccine is not a cure. It will not prevent every COVID-19 transmission. It will reduce the risk of transmission and, when transmission occurs, reduce the risk of serious illness and death," said the government of Saskatchewan in their November press release.
"If you are unvaccinated you are 11 times more likely to experience death or mortality than if you're vaccinated," Enebeli pointed out.
The first doses of Johnson & Johnson's Janssen vaccine, which is a non-mRNA vaccine, were recently delivered to Saskatchewan. Estevan had its first Jansen vaccination clinic on Tuesday. This vaccine is one-dose, which means that a person is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after the first and only required shot.